Unstaffed Maker Spaces? Don’t Even Think About it!


A little background…


Museum maker spaces—either permanent installations or public programs—are all the rage right now, at least in the U.S.  Picking up on the popular Maker Faire phenomenon launched by MAKE Magazine in San Mateo, CA in 2006, museums are moving to create hands-on tinkering and innovation spaces that reflect the Maker Faire spirit:

Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new, Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned. Maker Faire website

I think this movement is great. It seems to be reviving interest and focusing attention in a new way on a genre of spaces and activities that have been in many museums, especially science and children’s museums, for a long time: spaces such as discovery areas, play spaces, tinkering, art, or science labs. All of these areas involve free choice entry, lots of options for various activities, and a multiplicity of materials and resources to keep track of and to make available to visitors.  One thing that’s new about Maker Spaces is their incorporation of the latest technology into the hands-on experience.  I also think their emphasis on family and multi-generational participation is a welcome change; often discovery and play spaces have been perceived, either because of their design or because it was assumed, as places for kids only, and adults just stood and watched or wondered off to see the rest of the museum.

Can/should these spaces be unstaffed?

Museum exhibit developer and blogger Paul Orselli recently raised a question on the ASTC (Association of Science Technology Centers) listserv and on his Exhibitricks blog .  Do maker spaces have to be staffed? Apparently some museums are looking for ways to develop these hands-on spaces that inspire tinkering and creativity while saving on their most expensive and complex aspect – staff to manage and interpret them. I have a feeling it is not educators nor even exhibit designers who are asking this question – rather it is directors and financial officers – folks who have the daunting task of managing the budget in a difficult economy.  I’m hoping this post might provide some evidence based on both experience and research that Maker Space designers and educators can use to make the case for staffing. 


For much of my almost 30 years in museums I worked on exhibitions that involved special activity spaces.  The Psychology Exhibitionand Invention at Play both included such spaces not only in their original installations, but in their traveling versions as well.  MindFest programs, brainchild of Mitch Resnick  and the MIT Media Lab,  were developed to be held at many of the sites hosting Invention at Play in the early 2000s. Mindfests resembled nothing so much as Maker Faires.

Mindfest at Ft. Worth Museum of Science & History, 2001

After working with all of these exhibitions and programs, I have a fair amount of experience with both the challenges and the rewards of implementing staffed activity spaces.  I’m hoping this post can be of use to museum colleagues who believe in the educational value of staffed spaces and need some words and resources to explain it to funders and budget managers:


Making the Case for Staffing

1.     Use the wisdom of the field

During December 2012 the ASTC-ISEN listserv was full of responses to Paul Orselli’s question about unstaffed maker spaces.  Here are just a few excerpts, mostly from people creating or currently running active museum galleries. You can find the whole discussion in the listserv archives.


What would concern me more is the desire to run a space (museum?) unstaffed.  It costs a whole lot more to pay for staff than exhibits but nothing, NOTHING, trumps human interaction. Cutting staff is the road to ruin, IMHO.


An 'unstaffed maker space' is as much an oxymoron as a 'maintenance-free water area.' 

It is the teachers and makers that "make" the space.  

Certainly, maker type activities can be 'ruggedized' with instructions and limited
materials, but I don’t think a bunch of those together would be a maker space….Money spent on some creative staff and some glue guns is far more valuable than 3D printers.


It’s as much about re-humanizing the museum learning experience as it is about design-based activities. 


  1. Cite the many practical reasons for the need for staff both to manage and be present in these kinds of spaces:

Constant clean-up: While a bit of messiness adds to the maker atmosphere, total clutter, broken items, and general chaos create frustration and can contribute to hyperactive behavior; not the best ambiance for creativity.  And staff don’t want to be there only to clean up; they should be trained as facilitators who also keep an eye on all conditions on the exhibit floor.


Regular maintenance and repair: If we are really encouraging tinkering and experimentation, things will get damaged and broken.  If left for long periods, the general shabbiness of a space will discourage use.

Regular inventory:  For budgeting and maintenance purposes, you need to know what you started out with and what you have left on at least a weekly, but preferably a daily basis.

Health and safety:  Tools can be dangerous, especially if broken or if used improperly; depending on the age of children, there can be choking hazards as well as cleanliness issues.  All items need to be cleaned, repaired, and/or replenished on a regular basis. Think especially of this flu season!  Cleaning staff can handle some of this, but oversight on the floor is essential to maintain a safe creative environment.

Though designed so that visitors could build their own whirligigs without staff help, this component in Invention at Play required regular replacement of foam and dowels and thus inventory of parts. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.


  1. Cite the literature on learning as a social experience. 

                         Exhibitions without lots of moving pieces and parts can be designed to maximize social interaction among visitors without staff intervention, as Minda Borun’s research has shown
                         But with maker spaces, the practical requirements noted above make gallery staff necessary, and thus increase the opportunities for social interaction and “scaffolding,”  the process whereby more experienced learners help younger learners to build on and extend their skills and learning.
Resources on the visitor experience, such as The Museum Experience Revisited, John Falk and Lynn Dierking’s new edition of their classic book The Museum Experience, and the Fall 1999 issue of Exhibitionist on Meaning Making underscore the importance of the social context in human learning.
  1. Weigh the pros and cons of staffing in light of your goals for your space.
There is no question that staffing adds a heavy layer of expense and complexity to any exhibition. But as with anything valuable, one must always weigh the options:


                         If your goals for the visitor experience in your space include choice, variety, multiplicity of tools and materials, opportunities for tinkering and experimentation, an atmosphere of open-ended investigation and creation, and multigenerational interaction, then you must be willing to pay for and support a staffed space.


                         If you believe you cannot afford staffing then you must design and engineer a high degree of choice, variety, multiplicity, experimentation, and open-endedness out of your exhibit space.


In my view staffing is as essential to activity spaces as plexi is to exhibit cases.  If you were told there was no money for plexi for your cases, wouldn’t you find a way to trim a bit here, move funds around there, and come up with money for something that you believe is essential?  That’s how we should look at staffing for maker spaces – they cannot really exist without staffing, so we move heaven and earth to find the funding—or we don’t open them at all.

(With apologies to all readers for Blogger formatting above, which seems out of control…)

If this post is being sent to you by email and you would like to subscribe or add a comment please click on http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/ Thanks!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.